Eleanor drove them home in a sixteen year old white Mercedes that looked as if it had spent much of its life on North African dirt roads. Eames fondly remembered the car from his teenage days, but he, just as every other male member of the family and Julia insisted that the car should have long since been replaced by a more recent model. Eleanor just smiled and waved their concerns away. "I like this car," she said, "don't you, Katherine?" "Sure," Katie replied, "I think it's cool, Mum." And that usually ended the discussion.
They drove through town and down a winding road through the wintry countryside, turned onto a narrow lane and suddenly the house was before them, its reddish-brown bricks a little faded with age, its left side covered in dark green ivy.
A shaggy grey dog, the last surviving pup of Julia's beloved Irish wolfhound Amber that she had left in her mother's care when moving to London and that had died some five years ago, rose from the porch and padded towards them. Upon noticing Eames, the dog first gave a sharp bark, then sniffed and apparently recognized him. Arthur, on the other hand, received a low growl.
"Oh, hush Jago," Eleanor told it. "Down!"
Jago whined and obeyed, clearly dissatisfied. He seemed to be taking his duties as a guard dog seriously.
The front door opened and Eames' two younger siblings rushed outside, followed at a slower pace by his stepfather and Philip's pretty Czech girlfriend Hana. Katie had her arms about him before he could so much as call out a greeting.
"Sure," Eames said, trying to steady both of them, lest they end up in the mud covering most of the yard. "I always do."
"Yes, but still…" Katie beamed up at him. His younger sister was blond, freckled and petite. All in all, she looked very much like her father, as did Philip. Getting on tiptoes and peering over Eames' shoulder, she noticed Arthur and gave a squeal of delight.
"You brought him!"
"I said I would," Eames replied defensively, but Katie wasn't listening anymore.
"Oh, but he's so cute! Isn't he cute, Mum?" She looked at Arthur as if she was seriously considering to subject him to an enthusiastic hug, too.
"Katie, introductions first," Julia reminded her, sounding amused.
"Oh. Yes! Well…" She let go of her brother, stepped around him and thrust out a hand at Arthur. "Katherine Gray. Don't call me Katherine, though, only Mum's allowed to do that. I'm Katie. The stout little man behind me is my father. I think he's actually named Charles, but we all call him Charlie. The other guy is my baby brother Phil – Philip – and the pretty little girl is his girlfriend Hana." She paused for a moment to catch her breath, and added: "You know, it's nice to finally meet you. I was beginning to doubt you even existed anywhere outside my brother's warped mind."
Arthur looked a bit startled, but managed a smile. "I'm pleased to meet you, too," he said wryly, "I've heard much about you."
"Only the bad things, I'd wager," Katie laughed. "My brother tends to exaggerate, though."
"It's alright, Katie. Arthur's got a terrible little sister, too," Eames said. "She's much prettier than you, though."
"Hey!" Katie smacked him. "Idiot. Come inside already, I'm freezing."
She dragged him with her, while Arthur calmly introduced himself to Charlie, Phil and Hana, who smilingly shook his hand and otherwise left him be.
After the obligatory tour of the house – with Katie in the lead, of course – they all settled down in the living room. Charlie brought coffee and tea, and Eleanor set a tray with at least twelve different kinds of homemade cookies before them.
"You've lost weight," she told her son critically, her eyes narrowing.
"I thought that was a good thing?" Eames asked, grinning.
"Nonsense!" His mother said, then moved her attentions to Arthur. "And you, young man, could use a few pounds, too. You do look half starved."
"That's all the range these days, Mum," Julia told her.
"Ignore her," Phil advised Arthur, "she tries to save the world by feeding it." Despite his mother's best efforts, Phil was a slim, lanky youth, who along with Charlie's shortness of stature had inherited his pleasant smile and easy-going manner.
"Where's Adam?" Eames asked his sister. "Did you divorce him already?"
"He's still at the office, something came up last minute," Katie replied, munching a biscuit. "He'll be here in time for dinner, though. He loves Mum's cooking."
"Who doesn't?" Eames smiled at his mother. "Is Dad coming over, too?"
"Probably, but you do know your father," Eleanor replied, shrugging, "he's like a cat; he comes and goes as he pleases."
"Yeah, sort of reminds me of someone," Katie said, poking her brother in the side. "Like father, like son, huh? So, where have you been, brother? Travelling the world? Chasing villains or becoming one? Spying, cheating, fighting, cutting unsavory deals, or whatever it is you do when you're not with us…?"
Katie had always been too smart and too curious for her own good, Eames thought, and he was well aware of several curious pairs of eyes watching him and waiting for his answer.
"But Katie – I've always been a villain," he replied lightly, grinning at her.
"I can attest to that," his mother murmured, earning a round of good-natured chuckles.
"But where did you go?" Katie insisted, her eyes bright with curiosity. "I want some war stories, Eames. England is so dull in winter, and I didn't even get to go to that big conference in Manchester, since they decided last minute that they didn't need an interpreter, after all. And your life is bound to be more interesting than mine, since you have a real talent for attracting trouble."
"Finally!" Arthur said, with an exaggerated sigh, "and here I was thinking that I was the only one who had noticed that."
"Oh no," Julia assured him, "it's common knowledge."
"Will you stop making fun of me already?" Eames asked, faintly exasperated.
Arthur shrugged. "It's the truth."
"Huh. Well, I attracted you, darling, and that's about as troublesome as it gets, so I do suppose you're right," Eames told him, smiling beatifically. His family laughed.
"So you are troublesome, Arthur?" Katie asked, leaning in. "He looks very innocent, though."
"I can assure you, he's not. He's driving me mad."
Arthur rolled his eyes, mouthing something non-complimentary. The others laughed.
"That's how it's supposed to be, my boy" Charlie said, chuckling. "Just ask your mother. She's a real expert at that, too."
"Aww, Dad you'd get bored without that," Katie said, giving him a playful scuff.
"Probably," Charlie admitted.
"Hana and I are going to take Jago for a walk," Phil announced. "Is anyone coming along?" But he rather looked as if he hoped the answer would be 'no'. Eames smiled to himself, and caught an identical smile from Julia. Their little brother was very easy to read.
"You go ahead," Eleanor said, "I need to get dinner started. And you had better drive into town now, Charlie, if you want to pick up that bird from the butcher's."
"Almost forgot about that," Charlie replied sheepishly, getting up and stretching. "Shall I give you a ride, Katie? You said you needed to go to the post office earlier."
Katie shrugged. "Okay. But don't say or do anything interesting while I'm gone!" She warned her brother and sister.
"We wouldn't dream of it," Julia said, her face blank.
"Now how did you arrange that, Mum?" Eames asked his mother slightly exasperated when he joined her in the kitchen some fifteen minutes later. "Getting all four of them out of the house at once, so only you and Julia would be left to grill me about Arthur?"
"Oh, nonsense! I have no idea what you're talking about," Eleanor replied, stirring whatever it was that she was preparing. A heavenly smell wafted out of the pot, momentarily distracting Eames.
"What is that?"
"You'll see. Where is Arthur?"
"Upstairs. Calling his sister. It's his last chance before she gets on the plane, and I suppose he would rather not call her while she is staying with their parents." Arthur had requested some privacy for this particular conversation and Eames could fully understand that, but he had a sinking feeling that he was going to have to comfort him later.
"I see." Eleanor said, straightening up and turning around to face him. "And why is he not staying with his parents over Christmas…?"
Eames sighed. He had dreaded that question among many others, but better she asked him than Arthur…
"Not all parents are as tolerant of their children's choice in lifestyle as you and Dad are. Arthur's parents cast him out when he was seventeen and as far as I know, they've not spoken to him since. Listen, Mum, don't mention his family to him. It's a touchy subject. He'll talk about his sister or his grandmother, when he is in a good mood, but his parents are… well, it's an open wound."
Eleanor nodded her understanding. Then her eyes narrowed. "They cast him out? Who would do such a thing?!" It sounded truly enraged.
Eames smiled sadly. "Narrow-minded, intolerant people. It's their loss, because he is amazing. But they hurt him very deeply, and he's blaming himself. He's blaming himself for a lot of things he didn't do and for some he did do. All in all, Arthur is a very complicated and not a very cheerful person."
"But he makes you happy?"
"Among other things, yes. He also caused me a whole lot of grief and pain so far. But I think it's worth it." He shook his head wryly. "I have to believe it's worth it… I'm in too deep. There's not going to be an after-Arthur, so all I can do is hope that it will work out."
His mother reached up and patted his cheek. "It will. I believe in you, and if this is what you want, then you can make it work."
"Well, I hope Arthur agrees with you."
"Oh, I think he does," Julia said, leaning against the door frame. "Otherwise he wouldn't be here with you. You know, if there's anything you want to tell us about him, now would be the time."
"Like what?" Eames asked suspiciously.
"Like why does he carry a gun?"
"He does?" Eleanor asked, looking startled.
Julia nodded. "He's careful about it, but when you know what to look for, you see it."
Eames sighed. Damn you, Arthur!
"Would it help if I said that Arthur was a bit paranoid?"
"Nah, not really. Does he even have a permit to carry that gun?"
"I have no idea, I never asked. But he has very good aim, so he usually doesn't shoot random people, if that makes you feel safer."
"Eames," Julia said sternly, "what does Arthur do for a living?"
"You know very well that I'm not going to tell you that, so don't even bother. Sufficient to say, he has good reason to be a bit paranoid."
"Oh dear." His sister sighed. "He's one of the bad boys, right?"
"He's a lot of things. He's half Italian, Catholic, homosexual, but not really willing to admit that, he's an artist and a goddamn perfectionist, frightfully clever and a real pain in the ass sometimes, the most stubborn person I have ever met, my best friend, my worst nightmare, and my darling; and he'll be the death of me one of these days, but I really can't help it. Truthfully, I never thought we'd get this far, especially given the fact that Arthur doesn't do boyfriends, or even casual love affairs. But he does keep surprising me." He sighed, shaking his head. "I'm lost," he admitted.
"Sounds like it," his mother agreed with a faint smile. She stepped closer and put a hand on his shoulder, gently patting it. "You'll be fine, though. I was starting to worry a bit. Over thirty years old, and you had never really fallen in love. Oh, you fooled around a lot, as a boy and later, and don't you think I didn't know about that; but you never loved anybody." She smiled again. "Now I am not worried anymore. And I do not care who he is or where he comes from, as long as he makes you happy and you him. Because that is all that matters. Everything else is just unimportant backdrop. You'll see."
Eames raised his head to look at her face, her clear grey eyes gazing at him kindly and solemnly. Gratefulness for her acceptance flooded him. He had the sudden urge to hug her and gave in. "Thank you, Mum."